Google’s 20% policy

At some point in the short history of Google, employment practices have included what is known as a 20% time policy. The policy specifies that staff at Google spend 20% of their working week putting their feet up and being creative. During this time, staff do not work on specified Google projects, but instead focus on innovation, thinking about whatever it is they want to think about…

Earlier this year I became aware of this policy and began thinking about the implications that it could have when applied to education. My ideas have since taken two different paths.
20% creative time for teachers

An obvious alignment of Google’s policy to education, is to provide teachers with time off for 20% of their working week. This does not mean a day off each week to sleep in or go to the beach. Rather, the 20% would be set aside for teachers to develop projects at school, construct innovative curricula, do professional readings, design learning spaces and so forth. If a teacher with particular expertise wanted to spend some of this time working with groups of special needs students in order to achieve certain goals or explore learning pathways, then perhaps this could also be made possible.

Over the course of this year, I have been fortunate to have my own “20% time” of sorts. Specifically set aside for study that I am concurrently doing, I have used much of this spare time to consolidate my learning inside the classroom whilst being in my own space, free from distraction. Other graduate teachers at my school, working a full load for the first time, have looked on enviably at this apparent freedom. As they have told me, the extra classes that they are now teaching limit time for reflection and enhancement of teaching practices. For these young professionals, who are keen to perfect their craft, they are finding themselves managing to just teach and nothing more.  Could allocated time to think, reflect, plan, discuss and be creative make all the difference?

20% creative time for students

The idea of providing students with ‘creative time’ in which to explore their own ideas and interests under the guidance of a teacher sounds ideal in the current pedagogical climate of differentiation. Since a key role of education is to foster the development of young minds, why not try something similar at school? Why not push aside the time constraints set by the curriculum and allow students to experiment a little?

I initially had no idea of how this might play out. So many factors seem to limit this being feasible: disruptive classrooms arising from problematic behaviours, a crowded curriculum needing to be taught, and limited face-to-face time each week (not to mention excursions, camps, assemblies, strike days, professional development days, etc.).

For one of my classes in particular I have been wanting to make this happen though. In this class are students who have been a year ahead of the expected level since the start of the year, and who I feel I have not adequately catered for.

Over the weekend I saw a number of students from this class participating in the school production: on stage singing and dancing, in the band and backstage managing props and scene changes. The diversity of these students’ talents and interests jumped out at me, in a way that made me realise that the class work and whatever differentiation I had been providing up until then only pushed them back. Sure the odd bit of group work, competition or interesting, yet challenging mathematical problem spiced things up, yet the bulk of the learning itself has been traditional, expected and uncreative.

To implement this “20% time policy”, next term one session a week will be spent on an inquiry-based learning project. Whether it is science, English, music or mathematics itself that they are passionate about, students will research that area, devising a key question for exploration that is linked in some respect to their learning in maths. For example, if a student is a keen musician, they might look into the music of pi and potentially compose a song of their own. At the end of this process, students will then teach their peers and myself about their findings.

 

The ideas spelled out above are only preliminary thoughts that are still to develop. These thoughts are propelled by the sense that thinking outside the square will facilitate new understandings of concepts and ideas. Potentially, the allocation of time for creativity will also enable paradigm shifts in learning amongst students and teachers alike .

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4 thoughts on “Google’s 20% policy

  1. Interesting. I’m circumspect about the ‘20% creative time for teachers’ concept. Google is able to select brilliant people who thrive on the autonomy provided by virtue of their amazing reputation. Teaching is a long way off having an employee pool like Google’s!

    That said, I guess Hong Kong (I think, see Grattan Report) has a scheme that sees teachers undertake education research and development during office hours – more focused than the Google approach, but still allowing for employee inclination.

  2. Ever since I heard about the 20% time concept I’ve wanted to introduce it to my classes. I’ve always shied away from it though, because of the worries you mentioned and I couldn’t think of a good way to make sure that interesting maths would be done in that time.
    I’d be really interested to hear your experiences of how it goes though.

  3. Dan – you make a fair point. The 20% creative time definitely wouldn’t work for a lot of teachers. Coming into this field, I found myself with a lot more autonomy than in previous jobs. I wonder then, what is the best way to harness and enable this creativity for those teachers who do thrive on it?
    Phil – thanks for the encouragement! Will definitely post more about it once the project gets underway.

  4. Reserving to teachers time to imagine and try out creative approaches to their primary work seems essential to me. An organization gets what it pays its employees to do, and if it wants innovation or experimentation, it’s got to give employees the time and support to try things out.

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